New research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides new insight into nostalgia for past sexual experiences. The study indicates people who shun intimacy and dislike depending upon their partner are less likely to “calibrate” their sexual nostalgia based on their current needs.
“In general, I am interested in how people maintain sexual desire and satisfaction over time,” said study author Amy Muise, an assistant professor at York University and the York Research Chair in Relationships and Sexuality.
“We know that high-quality romantic relationships are important for overall well-being and one of the aspects of relationships that changes the most over time in relationships is sexual connection/desire. In most of my work, I aim to understand how partners can maintain desire and meet each other sexual needs, but I am also interested in how people respond to having unmet sexual needs in a relationship.”
“Given that in general, there is evidence that people (particularly those who are securely attached) might draw on nostalgic memories when feeling disconnected, we wondered if people might use sexual nostalgia (memories of fantasies about past sexual partners) when feeling sexually or relationally unfulfilled.”
An initial survey of 416 participants determined that fantasies about past partners could be distinguished from other types of sexual fantasies. Those who were single and those with lower relationship and sexual satisfaction tended to report having these types of nostalgic fantasies more frequently.
“It is somewhat common to have sexual fantasies or reflect on sexual memories of past partners and this seems to be a distinct type of sexual fantasy. Since past partner fantasies are based on experiences that a person has actually had, sexual fantasies about a past partner might have the unique ability to provide people with validation,” Muise told PsyPost.
“In one study of single people we found that when people recalled a past sexual experience that was nostalgic (compared to mundane) they felt higher levels of sexual esteem and confidence.”
The researchers also found that attachment avoidance — which describes the reluctance to form close personal relationships — appeared to influence fantasies about past partners.
Single participants who were low in attachment avoidance tended to report more sexual nostalgia than those with low in attachment avoidance who were in a relationship. Participants high in attachment avoidance, on the other hand, did not differ in sexual nostalgia when they were single or in a relationship.
“People in relationships who were securely attached (low in avoidance, comfortable with closeness) tended to report more nostalgia for past sexual experiences when they reported lower sexual or relationship satisfaction meaning that it is possible that people use these memories to get through times when they are unfulfilled,” Muise explained.
A second survey with another 378 participants and a daily diary study with 98 couples replicated the findings, providing more evidence that fantasies about past partners are more common when people are single or experiencing lower levels of relationship or sexual satisfaction — especially among those low in attachment avoidance.
“Sexual nostalgia seems to be something that only secure people (people low in avoidance) do in response to sexual and relationship dissatisfaction. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s beneficial, but secure people typically report higher satisfaction, so it is possible this strategy has important functions, but this piece of the puzzle is not well understood,” Muise said.
“Although reflecting on positive experiences could have some benefits, we did find that people who more felt more chronically sexually nostalgic over the course of a one month diary study declined in satisfaction three months later. So if people are constantly feeling nostalgic for sexual partners from the past this could have negative consequences, at least for feelings about a current relationship.”
“The findings from this line of work have made me reflect on two key things about the methods used to study nostalgia,” Muise added.
“One is the difference between triggering people to reflect on nostalgic experiences and naturally occurring nostalgia (and in our studies this is tied to the methodology). So encouraging people to reflect on a past sexually nostalgic experience could be positive and promote sexual optimism (since it is likely a positive, satisfying memory that they are recalling).”
“But when people draw on sexual nostalgia more naturally in their daily lives this seems to come from feeling less satisfied or unfulfilled and past sexual experiences might provide an upward comparison that could make people feel even worse about their current relationship and this could foster lower satisfaction over time,” Muise said.
The study, “Sexual Nostalgia as a Response to Unmet Sexual and Relational Needs: The Role of Attachment Avoidance“, was authored by Amy Muise, James J. Kim, Anik Debrot, Emily A. Impett, and Geoff MacDonald.